Friday, May 6, 2011

Frankenstein on a Friday

Mary Shelley

*I think I read an edition from 1833, but it might have been 1826. I read this as part of the Sirens reading list and also because I had it on my review list for the conference newsletter, but as it turns out, I don’t think it will be needed, and so, here.

I admit it: After a few pages of Frankenstein, I wanted to put the book down. Even though I was interested in what it might have to say about women writing monsters, and in how it has influenced so many books and films, I wasn’t enjoying anything about the writing or characters--and my scanned, digitized version was riddled with so many errors that I was getting especially frustrated. I took a break to peek at Wikipedia for a little bit of background information. There, I found out a lot of things. I’ve sometimes confused Mary Shelley with her mother. I’d been told--and since forgotten--that Frankenstein is the monster’s creator, not the monster himself. The monster isn’t green, but a sickly yellow. This wasn’t Mary Shelley’s only book, but it is the most popular today; when it was first published anonymously, it was assumed to be Percy Bysshe Shelley’s work, and a second edition toned down the drama, supposedly with Mary’s cooperation. Armed with these tidbits, I approached Frankenstein with renewed curiosity.

In the end, I don’t know if the extra information helped me with my reading, as I found myself wondering what a reader of yesterday perceived, as opposed to my personal perceptions. You see, Frankenstein is riddled with big-picture monsters: class, race, gender, education inequities, colonialism, and other concerns appear one after another and are abruptly shouldered out of the way, opening multiple threads for further analysis. The question of whether or not people should mess around with nature--or a deity’s work--isn’t entirely buried, but the conflict between Frankstein the creator of the monster and the monster’s resistance to Frankenstein’s power takes a very long time to develop. That said, Frankenstein raises all sorts of interesting questions about monsters, about being a monster, about the value of life, and about revenge and regret.

Frankenstein is also very interesting structurally. The point of view spirals inward slowly; the story begins with the letters of a naive young scientist who hasn’t yet unraveled his own arrogance enough to understand that his ambitions might not be worth the lives of his crew, intensifies with Dr. Frankenstein’s account of creating a monster and then rejecting and fearing it, gives the monster a voice in telling his own tale of searching for place, and then has the monster relate a story of a family that he has observed and their “monsters.” After this close up, the point of view reverses quickly, as if we’ve seen the worst of humanity and recoiled. The tale was first a short story that was later expanded, so I was surprised to find so much structural sophistication.

Overall, while I didn’t truly enjoy Frankenstein, I think it has provided me with a foundation for thinking about monsters, the monstrous, and how monsters are created and defined.

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